Session Prep 01 - The Grassy Gnoll



A few of you have asked me how I prep my sessions for my weekly game, if there is any secret that I use to get certain results. While I appreciate the cloak and dagger-esque antics some of you think I carry out to bring an adventure to my players (with clandestine meetings in dark allies with seedy characters), I can assure you that there is no big secret to what I do, or how I do it. In truth, there is no real one way of doing game prep at all. It varies from Game Master to Game Master, depending on style and organizational skills. But if there is any interest, I have no problem showing how I personally prep for a session.

Sit back, its about to get weird.

A Little Backstory About My Story
My current weekly campaign is called Dragonslayer, and I have been running it since last July. It's a D&D 5th Edition game consisting of three players traversing a homebrew region called "The Vale". These are free lands with no real central government, but most things are controlled by a corrupt lumber company that have their hands in everything and don't take kindly to things standing in their way. Each section of The Vale is controlled by a Lumber Baron, who delegates duties to the leaders of each town in that section.

My players currently find themselves in an ancient forest called The Eldwood. They recently got caught up in a struggle between said corrupt lumber company and The Verdant Circle, a collective of druids that has charged itself with protecting this forest from the clear-cutting interlopers. Things have turned violent thanks to the machinations of an exiled member of the circle named Erravan Winterhawk, whose 'kill 'em all" attitude was a little too extreme for the druids, who, for the most part, are pacifists. He has personally started murdering loggers in an attempt to provoke them into attacking the druids of The Verdant Circle in hopes of starting an all out war that will force his former comrades to see that he was right all along and will eventually mean his welcoming back into their good graces.

 "Crazy druid is crazy."

Right now, the players have just left the elven town of Nihlanor, on the shores of Lake Ember. Their rogue, a tiefling named Lamaia, must feed her sentient sword, Blackneedle, a soul before sundown or the blade (which seeks to consume the souls of all living things) will take over her body and act through her to complete its dark work. The party has opted to join her on her desperate hunt for anything to feed the blade before time runs out, and likewise convince her to rid herself of the blade.


Step 1: Figuring Out A Challenge
The session will revolve around her hunt in the surrounding forest. I tallied up the XP threshold for the party to see what kind of challenges they can handle while out and about.  The characters are currently level six, and since there are only three of them, the breakdown looks a little something like this...

XP Threshold for 3 6th Level Characters
Easy 900
Medium 1,800
Hard 2,700
Deadly 4,200
Knowing that this is just a little aside before we delve into some deeper elements of the ongoing story, I don't want to set the challenge too high, so I will keep it around Easy to Medium. Now that I know how much XP I have to work with, I go and take a gander at what God-awful thing I can throw at them. 

 "Well isn't that cunnin'"

Step 2: Reviewing Notes
When coming up with challenges, I like to take a look at my notes from previous games. Thanks to Evernote, I keep extensive records of each encounter they have faced, as well as the ones they have avoided. If you aren't using Evernote, USE EVERNOTE! Or at the very least, a similar program. It makes life so much easier. 

Anyway, I noted that there was a gnoll tribe that attacked a town north-east of where the characters started the campaign, but the players were off doing other things, like liberating a dwarven city besieged by orcs, so thus far, no gnolls have been encountered.

 "My players took the above path, so I get to use stuff from the bottom path. Recycle, kids!"


Something you should know about me is that I hate overusing creatures too much. I like keeping things fresh. I also hate throwing away ideas, just because players don't decide to go that direction,  so having them face gnolls would be a fun and different encounter than any they faced before, and I get to stay nice and lazy and use notes I already had. So... GNOLLS!



"They're kinda cute, in a 'laughing-while-gnawing-on-your-bones-while-you're-still-alive' kinda way."

Step 3: Connecting Threads
Now, as a story note, these gnolls operate under the BBEG of the campaign, so the chance of infusing some story into this session is too good to resist. That said, I like to connect various story threads together when I can. Remember that character I mentioned above? The exiled druid, Erravan Winterhawk? I started pondering how I could get him tangled into this web  with the BBEG, and I got to thinking what would happen if Erravan guided the gnolls through the forest undetected? 

But why would this druid do such a thing. Gnolls are notorious nihilists. That typically doesn't bode well for nature conservation. But, Erravan is crazy, and good at manipulating things. He is nutty enough to believe that he can turn the gnolls loose on the loggers, provoking a massive reaction from them (and probably killing the gnolls too, thus tying up a loose end). 

 "Evil plan is evil."

Now it should be of note that the players will not know any of this. This is stuff that is happening behind the scenes, and unless they go out of their way to uncover it, it stays behind the scenes. This is simply for the Game Master's own personal reference. When doing anything in your story, it helps to justify the motivations of the parties involved.  

Step 4: Factions - Who Wants What
Factions are a great thing to include in an area. They can generate story elements, hand out objectives, and move things in a direction the players were not expecting. There are a few factions out in the Eldwood, all operating at the same time. The thing about factions is that they all want something. And if those somethings are opposed, and the two factions meet, we have ourselves a little conflict. Here are what my factions are up to.
  • Erravan Winterhaw - Erravan is a faction unto himself. He wants the druids of The Verdant Circle to welcome him back with open arms. Moreover though, he wants them to see that his zealous, xenophobic outlook is the right one. Mostly though, he wants to show the current leader of the circle, a wood elf druid named Maelstrom,  how wrong he was for throwing Erravan out. Ideally he wants to become the new leader of The Verdant Circle, but for now, he is alright with undermining the current leadership.
  • The Gnolls of the Red Claw - These guys are agents of the BBEG. They, like their orc counterparts, are made of of several tribes and unified under a singular banner. They were promised death and destruction, and whatever else they needed to impress their demon lord, Yeeghu.
  • The BBEG - This Machiavellian son of a bitch has been manipulating events all over the region, and has been building himself a nice little army of monsters. These agents are used to strike strategic locations where information and relics about a secretive (and long thought dead) order of dragon slaying knights are known to be hidden. His goal is to find the location of a dragon who almost ascended to godhood before it was sealed away, and help it ascend, riding its coattails into divinity while he's at it. But that is only part of what he wants. His daughter was cursed ages ago by a powerful necromancer, and there was no way of breaking said curse short of divine intervention. He begged God after God, but they refused to intervene (probably because of his less than clean past). Only one God answered his plea. Technically a Goddess; Tiamat. She said she could lead him on the path to saving his daughter. All he had to do was find the location of a long forgotten dragon (her former lover), of whom almost all records of have been destroyed, free it from its prison, help it ascend, and he would be rewarded. So in a Mr. Freeze-esque sort of way, he encased his daughter in stone and set out on his quest to dismantle any opposition (the dragon slayers), find their secrets, free the dragon, become a God, and then free his daughter from the curse. It's all so easy! That's why it has taken a hundred years. Unknown to the group, this guy is staying in the same elven town they are staying in. DUN DUN DUUUNN!
  • The Loggers - These guys want to clear cut this ancient forest, turn everything into lumber, and make a profit. Money is what drives and motivates them, and this whole druid problem is not cost effective, especially when their workers are dying. They have had to dip into their funds to hire a band of mercenaries to "clean up" this problem.
  • The Crimson Axes - The mercenary company hired by The Loggers is roaming through the woods. They have not enjoyed their stay, having been beset upon by harpies, carnivorous plant life, and a werewolf (actually a member of the party, but they mistook it as a druid shapeshifting). They want nothing more than to get things over with and collect their money. They are not having fun out here in the forest.
  • The Verdant Circle - The druids of the circle just want the forest and themselves left alone. They care for the forest like they care for their children. They have little desire to kill anyone. In the past, they aligned themselves with the church of Malar, the Beast Lord. Its werewolf followers would hunt down and kill any outsiders that dared enter. For a time, the druids were cool with this, but the sheer brutality of it made them reconsider, and they turned on the disciples of Malar, vowing never to tread down that path again.

Factions help flesh out the area (an article about which is forthcoming). It lets you know who the power players are, and what their agendas are. This is especially important in sandbox areas, like I am doing in the Eldwood, where they could happen upon these factions at any time, and could have contact with one or more of them. Factions can exist anywhere too, just just a particularly large area, like a forest. They can appear in towns, cities, and even something as small as a dungeon, with various factions or creatures competing for resources of power.

 "You never take the last slice of pizza. NEVER!"


Step 5:  Locations
The stage is set, now it is time to figure out where we want to set everything. The forest is the easy choice. They are smack dab in the center of it. But that is too vague. There are a lot of things in the forest. Trees, meadows, glades, glens, clearings, brooks, streams, brush, caves, etc. When deciding on a location, I try to think of where a lot of the action an intrigue will be taking place.

Erravan Winterhawk led the gnolls to a temple of Malar, the Beast Lord. That is where they have been holding up, preparing for an attack against the loggers to the south. The temple is where I would like to have many of this sessions' events take place. I say "I'd like to" because players are little chaos generators.

The problem with this temple is its close proximity to the elven town of Nihlanor. Since the players will be trotting around in wilderness a few hours outside of town. They are on a tight schedule, as it is already early afternoon, and the blade takes over at sunset, leaving only a short distance that can be traveled. Since we know the temple is near the town, and that the townsfolk would probably not be comfortable with a temple dedicated to a Chaotic Evil being within a good hike of their homes, the problem becomes a matter of hiding the temple.

 "I bet this guy knows where to hide temple. If you're under 28, this joke may require some research."

Now a hidden temple of Malar sounds pretty boss, but where to hide it. Malar is one of the nature Gods, so somewhere deep in the woods sounds like a good starting place. The Beast Lord is also the god of evil werewolves, so already we have nature, and probably a big emphasis on the moon. I would like to use the moon as a part of worship for Malar, so I decided that there should be a place where the moon can shine into the temple without being obstructed, so a forest clearing would work best. However, I run into the same issue as before. Having a big evil temple right out in the open is not very viable, especially since the elves have been in the area while, and would no doubt have a good lay of the land.

So I put the sucker underground, I placed a hole in the center of clearing, which in the centuries since it has been used has no doubt grown over with vegetation. That hole let the moonlight shine in, and boom, we have out lunar aspect. I then places a hidden stairwell in the trunk of an massive, hollowed out tree for access to the temple proper, because a big hole in the ground is just inconvenient.

 "This looks nothing like a donkey! I know the difference!"

But clearings are boring. I want to give a sense of age and history to my locations, and a flat patch of grass surrounded by trees does not have the pop I want. I recently read an article about old standing stones in remote locations, and really dug the imagery, swearing I would work it into a game somehow. So I did. The hole now lies in the center of a circle of standing stones that jut up along the perimeter of the clearing, inscribed with various lunar symbols, and text in druidic carved into the very rock, adding to the mystery.



Now I have the where. I just need to figure out how I am going to get them there


Step 6: The Hook
Blues Traveler once said "The hook will bring you back". They weren't lying. Hooks are how we Game Masters entice players to follow a path we have set. It may sound like railroading, but I assure you it's not. The players must choose to take the hook of their own free will. This can be an exercise in psychology, because it really comes down to a manipulation of your players' actions by offering some manner of reward, be it story, loot, or something else.

After these many months, I have a pretty good idea what hooks will work, and which ones fall flat. I have about a 90% accuracy rating  when it comes to guess what they will decide to do (the illusion of choice). Because the rest of the party is concerned about helping the thief with her sentient blade problem, I don't really need to worry about a hook for them; helping their friend is a hook they begin with already built in. What I need to do now is entice the thief. To do this, all I need to do is figure out what she wants right now.

At the moment, she id desperate. She doesn't want to be taken over by the sword, but she doesn't want to give it up, either. So her only real option is to feed it. I want them to go to the clearing with the standing stones. I want that badly. So I will lead them to it. I'll bait them with what looks like an easy catch. After a few hours of trekking through from town, seeing little to no viable wildlife, they will happen upon a deer at the edge of the forest. It will not have noticed them at first.

 "Hello. My name is Bambi Montoya. You killed my mother. Prepare to die."

The catch with the blade is that it needs to strike the killing blow to feed on the souls it slays, so the gang is going to have to get into melee with it if they don't want to risk killing it outright with a well placed arrow. This will require Dexterity (Stealth) checks from anyone wishing to approach the deer. The slightest snap of a branch and the thing will bolt, so they must be careful.

Now, if they should scare the deer, it bounds off into the woods, leaving a good trail to follow. If they really move, they might be able to catch up with it. The deer runs straight for the clearing, where it will be slain by gnolls in the area. If the players are moving stealthily through the underbrush, they will come upon a gnoll pulling an arrow out of the deer's carcass, completely unaware of their presence and ripe for an ambush. This provides the thief with her opportunity to feed her sword, as well as open things for the gnoll fight.

 "GNOLL BATTLE!"

Should their original Dexterity (Stealth) checks be successful when approaching the deer in the first place, all is not lost. I just need to edit the events a little. This is where it helps to be flexible. The thief's attack might miss, or fail to kill the deer, in which case I continue with the plan above. Or, as a real sticker, before they can even land that first hit, the deer drops dead from a strange arrow fired from deeper in the woods. This should make the players very nervous, and eager to get to the bottom of things. The further in they go, the more likely they are to be ambushed by the gnolls. When gnolls start dying in droves, they will retreat back to the standing stones, leading the party right where I want them.



Sure, they could choose not to investigate, or go into the woods, or pursue the gnolls. That is fine. But they still have a keen interest feeding the blade and returning to town by nightfall. Following the gnolls is the best chance they will have of pumping a soul into that accursed sword. And if they let slip in town that gnolls are in the area, things will move quickly.

The events unfolding lead to a series of new hooks that will be left dangling in the water, waiting to be bitten.

  • The appearance of gnolls in the area will be troubling for the players and the town. An enemy like that lurking so close would be seen as a sign of an impending attack, and the players would be no doubt tapped by town officials to scout around the area they encountered them.
  • The symbol of the Red Claw is one the players are very familiar with, though until now they had only assumed it was a tribe of orcs that used it. Now with this new revelation, their concerns will only grow, and they may be poised to start asking the elves if they know anything about the symbol.
  • The standing stones are a mystery, and may provoke the players to seek out more members of The Verdant Circle to help them in understanding them.
  • A thorough search of the area will reveal either the hole in the center of the clearing, or the stairs leading down into the temple of Malar.
  • The temple of Malar provides a dungeon to explore in the area, where more gnolls are holed up. But there are nastier critters lurking in the depths of said dungeon.
  • All this back and forth with the town can get them acquainted with important NPCs in the area.

The rest of the night can easily consist of pursuing any one, or all of these hooks. The hooks were generated from the actions the players are most likely to take. If that was not enough, there are hooks from previous sessions that they can tackle, like...

  • The barrow of a disgraced High Elf captain a few hours south-west of town that the thief was violently compelled to raid, but was pulled away by the party. 
  • The guy they are searching for (Erravan) is rumored to be living somewhere near the south, in the mountains.
  • The party monk/werewolf encountered a mysterious elven male hunting at night that slid into the forest and vanished.
  • They don't know this, but nearby lives a depressed adult green dragon whose child the players slew in their first adventure.


That all seemed a little more complicated than it needed to be, but thoughts usually are when thrown on paper. But, I did manage to figure out a challenge, I reviewed my notes, I connected story threads and factored in the factions so that there was a little verisimilitude in the events. I picked an interesting location, and I set the hooks. The rest is up to the players tonight.

 "With fewer celebrity voices."

I will update this article with a summery of the events of the session, and you can see how closely, if at all, the players followed my design. But, like I always say, players are chaos generators, and I wouldn't be surprised if we ended up in the middle of the lake... for reasons.

**UPDATE**

The players took the bait, and stalked the deer. A gnoll killed it, and the characters gave pursuit, leading to a fun little chase to the clearing with the standing stones. The rogue arrived first, only to discover seven very surprised and angry gnolls. In a move I hadn't considered, she raised her hands up and willingly surrendered. The monk arrived next, making a hell of a racket. He was quickly discovered and likewise surrendered.

With two characters captured, I grew concerned. I know that there is a large contingent of gnolls holed up in the hidden temple below their feet, and that is exactly where the gnolls up above would take their prisoners. With their weapons stripped from them, the characters don't stand much of a chance against 20 gnolls, a Pack Leader, and a Fang of Yeenghu. The only thing they have going for them is that in this temple of Malar, which was built by werewolves, all lycanthropes that enter immediately transform, and the monk is a werewolf.

Because I always loved the idea of a PC lycanthrope, and the monk was cursed early on in the game, I decided to make rules that allowed him to control "the beast within" to some degree. While he can't control when he transforms, he can retain control with a DC 20 Charisma saving throw. This DC is reduced by 1 for every successful lunar cycle he is able to maintain control, and it is increased by 1 for every life he takes in wolf form and hybrid form.

So far, he has done a fantastic job of gaining control. However, this time when the transformation was triggered, he  filed spectacularly, and went on a kill-crazy rampage. Strangely, this improved the characters' chance of survival, because while in that form, the monk can lay waste without having to worry about damage (gnolls aren't known for running around with silver or magic weapons). The Fang of Yeenghu, on the other hand, stepped up. For the purposes of this encounter, I made his claw attack count as magical, so that the playing field would be somewhat leveled.

Long story short, the players survived, many of the gnolls did not, the rogue was able to feed her sword, and the bard was able to keep the monk from eating anyone. They scoped out the temple, and discovered a crypt with three stone sarcophagi. While they didn't open them (thank the Gods, I really didn't want a TPK), they know they are there, and will no doubt be returning again.

I still have many of my hooks in town still available, it gives me some material to work with in the future. The majority of gnolls escaped the temple after their leader was killed. With no other familiar faces to turn to, they will go to Erravan, who will finally make his presence felt.

As for next session, I have been running pretty hard for quite a few weeks now, so I think it's time to let them stop and smell the roses before things get crazy again. Next time, I will attempt to prep one of my favorite, yet more chaotic elements of the game; a night out on the town.

Plot it. Plan it. Live it. Love it.
+Ed The Bard


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